And kudzu too

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Among the many things we lost when the Mobile daily newspapers were shut down (don’t get me started on that), we lost the frequent articles by naturalist-gardener-horticulturist-scientist Bill Finch, who carried readers through the seasons with style, grace and a lot of good information about plants and planting.
So you can imagine how happy I was to get my latest copy of Smithsonian magazine and find in it Finch’s piece on kudzu, “Legend of the Green Monster.”
Apart from telling me stuff I did not know – for example “the vine that ate the South,” is not eating the South after all– the article brought back a rush of kudzu memories.
Like the time kudzu almost got some of my students arrested.
Let me explain.
Back in the early 1970s I was a graduate student at the University of Georgia, trying to support a wife and child on the slave wages they doled out to teaching assistants – kids in my class paid the same tuition as if they were taught by a professor, but they got me instead.
The course was U.S. History survey.
It was required.
And I faced the same problem that all teachers of required courses face: How to make it interesting to students who could care less.
So I came up with what I believed was a brilliant project.
It involved kudzu.
And seeing history all around you.
You need more explaining.
Athens, where UGA is located, is a town of historic buildings.  I wanted my students to take note of them.  So I made up this exercise.
First I set the stage.
Once upon a time (I wrote in the instructions) the pollution in the Oconee River (which flows through Athens) created a rich overflow that fertilized the kudzu that lined its banks. The kudzu grew so rapidly that it overwhelmed the town, driving out the inhabitants, and covering all the buildings with a green shroud.
And there Athens remained, a Georgia Pompey, smothered in kudzu instead of ashes.
Decades passed. Centuries.
Athens was forgotten.
Then one day the same Oconee River that fertilized the Kudzu regurgitated a poisonous cloud that killed the kudzu and exposed the town.
At least some of it.
Investigators discovered that the only buildings that survived the kudzu onslaught were those build before 1877 (not coincidentally the date the course ended).
The assignment was to take the city street map that I (and the Chamber of Commerce) provided, and over the next few weeks walk the streets of Athens, identify the pre-1877 buildings, and mark their location on the map.
(There was a little more to it than that, but for this telling, this much will do.)
A few showed some enthusiasm for the project.  Most stared at me as if  to say “you can send me to college but you can’t make me think.”
And off they went.
Some of my smartest and most enthusiastic students decided to work together.
All seemed to be going well until a few weeks later when this bunch came up after class and blurted out that “you almost got us arrested.”
How could that be?
More explaining.
It seemed that the group – three boys, one girl – all worked jobs in the afternoons and on Saturday.  (They did not mention Sunday. I assumed they were in church. College students do that I hear.)
Going to classes in the morning, working in the afternoon, meant they only had evenings to do their homework.  Normally they would go to the library or study in dorms, but my assignment required walking about.
So they took their flashlights and began looking for historic buildings, some of which were in dark corners of the city.
It happened that some police out on night patrol saw four young folks with flashlights poking around in places where folks with flashlights shouldn’t poke.
So naturally they detained them.
When questioned the students explained how, centuries ago, kudzu covered Athens and when the kudzu finally died only pre-1877 buildings remained and . . .“Stop right there,” said Athens’ finest, as they sniffed the students for alcohol or the devil’s weed.
Now you gotta admit, kudzu eating Athens was hard to swallow – sorry.
It looked like my students following my directions, were about to become part of the criminal class.
Then one of the group produced the assignment, showed the officer the map, and explained to him what I have just explained to you.
The police, not wishing to interfere with their education, let them go.
I recalled this when I read in Finch’s article that a few years ago the Japanese kudzu bug arrived at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and began eating its way through Dixie.
One day the kudzu will be gone.
No telling what we will find when it is.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at hjackson@cableone.net.

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